Nice gets nasty with unwelcome beggars

High On the steep hillside of Mont Chauve, at the very end of the long, winding road from Nice, stands a newly whitewashed house that looks out across olive groves to one of the most expensive views in France: an uninterrupted panorama of old Nice and the Mediterranean.

But this house, isolated and of indeterminate vintage, is not the ultimate in luxury Riviera villas. It is Nice city council's latest answer to a problem that has grown over the past five years to the point where ratepayers and visitors demanded action.

The problem is seasonal begging, which verges on harassment. Although it afflicts cities and resorts across southern France, it is particularly acute in Nice, fostered by the size and attractiveness of the city, its broad avenues and shady palms, and its large number of visitors.

The head of this summer's pioneering project, councillor Noel Ayraud - a professor of medicine - says that Nice has three kinds of beggars, and the difficulty is devising measures that distinguish between them. "We have the old tramps we have always had, who present no real problem; people temporarily fallen on hard times, often because of some family trauma, who can often be rehabilitated; and then an organised sort of mafia, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, often illegal arrivals from eastern Europe or the south, who spread fear and threaten people. ... We have to protect the population."

Anyone in Nice - native or visitor - will describe the phenomenon in less neutral terms. "There are our local beggars, the ones who have always been in our district, and that's fine, they don't harm anyone. But there are these others, young and able-bodied, some of them high on drugs, with their vicious dogs milling around. And they're really threatening. They're scaring tourists away - they even scare me sometimes," said a strapping taxi driver.

Each morning, the city police do the rounds of areas where beggars congregate. Those deemed to be violating a new bylaw are transported, willingly or not, to the spartan hostel on Mont Chauve. It is nine miles away from the city, and there is no public transport. Once there, they are offered use of one of the new showers, freshly laundered clothes from a stock neatly piled on shelves, and food. A doctor is on duty, and a social worker. In the evening, the "beggars" are transported back to town.

Supporters of the scheme say that it may not be perfect, but it is the only solution anyone has offered. Mr Ayraud says he would prefer a hostel closer to town, but it was impossible to find one in time.

Some of the more thoughtful critics, however, are the beggars who spend their days enjoying the view from Mont Chauve. Grateful to be treated "with dignity" - one of the council's watchwords for its new policy - they, too, insist that there are beggars and beggars.

"It's a good policy, badly applied," said one man in his 40s, in very passable English. "And we lose a day's takings."

"The trouble comes from the younger ones, and the foreigners," said Patrick, pulling himself out of his horizontal position on the floor. "They can get 500 to 600 francs [pounds 64 to pounds 76] a day begging on the Riviera. They spend it all on drink, then get aggressive."

He fished a bottle of rose wine out of a plastic bag and passed it round, oblivious of the irony. The bananas and biscuits on the table lay untouched.

"The whole problem is that we can't get work and without work we can't get anywhere to live - they say I'm too old," said Nicolas. "I'm 47 - but look at me." He flexed his muscles. "Of course I can work."

A recent survey conducted by charity groups denied that there was any big seasonal migration of the indigent. It found that the begging population, old and young, was mostly local, and accused local councils of blowing up the issue out of all proportion for political advantage.

For councillors, however, the provenance of the beggars is secondary to their numbers and behaviour. As well as distinguishing "acceptable" beggars from the rest, while remaining on the right side of the law, they also have to confront two equally strong but conflicting French instincts: a high tolerance of begging as a means of support when all else fails, and very strict views about acceptable ways of behaving in public places.

Last summer, for the first time, newly elected councils in a dozen or more French cities passed by-laws banning begging in central areas. But within a month, most of the regional prefects, the local representatives of central power, had overruled the councils, and judges in Paris had declared the bylaws unconstitutional. Beggars were ruled to be exercising a legal right.

This year the councils were more circumspect. Instead of bylaws to restrict begging in general, they passed regulations to prohibit the behaviour that people most resented, such as demanding money with menaces, obstructing a public thoroughfare, drinking alcohol in public and possession of a dog without a lead or the regulation identity tattoo in its ear.

Civil-rights groups and organisations for the homeless, however, challenged the regulations.Montpellier and Toulouse have both lost test cases in the past two weeks; but Nice became the first council to have its 1996 bylaw upheld. Full details of the judgment are not yet available, but two points of its defence could have been decisive. The council's right- wing majority said the begging issue was a key point in the election platform that won it control. And it provided care and counselling for those detained under the new bylaw, a policy unique to Nice.

Joseph Cicciolini, the head of Bien Public, which led an alliance of citizens' groups in challenging the bylaw, says the chief objection is to its vague wording, and the "dangerous precedent" of using the municipal police to enforce a political decision. By outlawing certain types of behaviour, he says, Nice is trying to hide its problems or push them elsewhere.

The greatest indictment of Nice's new policy, however, is that it is not working. Those spending their days, willingly or not, at Mont Chauve are mostly the "local" beggars who did not offend anyone. The rest are still on the streets.

On my way back to the railway station in the sultry Mediterranean heat, I ran the gauntlet of those beggars the city council's bylaw was supposed to remove.

"Spare me a sou," shouted one, sticking his hand right in front of my face.

"Merde!" he cursed, and shook his fist as I carried on past.